Books You Dress Up For: Novel Augmentation Through Sensory Fiction

As someone who studied literature in university and works in the creative arts, I probably should be a purist. Maybe even a snob.

But since I’m also into gaming, technology, and all sorts of absurdly “low” culture, I am actually very interested in anything that pushes the edges of where formal literature is going – or, at least, shows us how far it can go.

This past week I stumbled across an article about a vest that is to be worn when reading the award-winning novella, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree, Jr. (pen name of Alice Sheldon). The vest works as a technological peripheral that stimulates certain physical sensations for the reader, triggered by events in the book.

The kids these days are calling this Sensory Fiction. And man, I’m so down for it.

While I haven’t yet read the The Girl Who Was Plugged In (nor worn the vest!), I am impressed and inspired by the potential of literary add-ons that augment what we are reading.

If you’ve ever gone gone to a movie theatre with those “rumble seats” that shake when explosions go off on screen, or vibrate when a horde of Mongols or Orcs storm over a ridge, you know how physical stimulus can aid storytelling otherwise told in a different medium. You also know the kinds of movies I see.

As well, if you’ve ever experienced the guided tours of artists like Janet Cardiff, you know that multiple stimuli can intersect and overlap between the real and the imaginary, the suggested and the actual, and that the overall experience, if done well, can be greater than the sum of its parts.

I think purists would say that Sensory Fiction – be it a vest, a “reading chair” or a whole room – takes away from the reading experience, which asks / allows readers to create the world entirely in their imagination. However, I see the advance of Sensory Fiction in a different vein, one that could actually help build worlds for readers that go beyond what we build in our minds as we read.

If you read a very sad novel in an extremely bright room while listening to the quiet thrumming of light classical music, the experience would probably be very different than if you read the same novel in a dank basement listening to atonal grindcore at high volumes. Would that make the first experience less valid? Would it make the second more artificially directed? Would it mean you need to buy some new music and deal with a serious heat dispersion issue throughout your house? Maybe yes to all three, but it reveals a larger point – that no reading experience exists in a vacuum.

This vest may be a prototype or have limited potential in its current form, but wearable and interactive “reading technology” and books that are truly smart and plugged-in could, in time, make the imaginary world more real. And really, that is the transcendent goal of all art, whether it’s considered high, low, or still-evolving.

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